Lay Missionary: 'The Bright Light'
67 Year Old Vicki Smith is called "the bringer of light" by those in Kenya to whom she ministers with the love of Christ.
In sub-Sarahan Africa's largest slum, the small but fiery 67-year-old woman from Oregon is known as Shushu, or grandmother. Some call her Namutenya, which means "bringer of light."
Smith, a Maryknoll lay missioner, directs nine Catholic schools and the only public library in Kibera, a crowded 550-square-acre district in the middle of Nairobi, Kenya. Home to about a million people living in small huts and without utilities, Kibera is troubled by pollution, crime and disease.
But in partnership with the local Catholic parish, Smith tries to maintain bits of culture and joy.
Many residents come to her to solve problems and get aid of every kind. Often, she spends five or six hours with people in the lobby before even entering her small office in the teeming slum.
"This ministry allows me to live out my obligation of meeting Christ," she said in an interview with the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese. Smith was back in Oregon for several weeks to get some rest before returning to Kenya.
She is associated with Christ the King Parish, which has two churches, five outstations and the schools. The Fathers of Guadalupe, missionaries from Mexico, lead the operation.
The majority of people in Kibera live a half dozen to a hut. The shacks, 14-by-14 feet or so, usually have a single bed and a wax-burning stove and few other furnishings.
Residents earn less than 70 cents a day. Most families can barely feed their children or afford medicines and health care, let alone pay school fees. They eat one meal a day.
Young girls -- many who have been forced into prostitution -- give birth on the streets and leave their babies lying on the ground. Rescue workers do what they can.
Corruption and tribal conflict complicate the already-tough environment.
"I notice the smiles on the faces," said Smith. "They are not really happy but they still smile. Life's a constant struggle for them."
The Kenyan government has no schools in Kibera. There is no running water, sewers or electricity.
In her work, Smith serves about 1,200 students, 47 teachers and 17 school staff members. She provides formal and informal education and resource materials to school-age children, young adults and dropouts. She ensures students get a full range of subjects taught by qualified teachers and a chance to participate in sports, drama, music and other extracurricular activities. They also can visit a real library.
"Some of these kids had never seen a library," she said. Students come from all over to study, even from universities.
Her dream is to help students pass entrance exams for admittance into higher learning institutions, while preparing them to be responsible, self-sufficient and concerned citizens.
Smith has begun a new project, trying to help Kibera's poor women start small business enterprises to support themselves. Some pedal charcoal and others sell food or recycle paper. The money helps the women support families in general or pay school fees for their children.
A resident of Salem for 40 years, Smith became Catholic in 1991, but was involved at the Benedictines' Mount Angel Abbey well before that. As a Presbyterian, she was the abbey's first Protestant oblate.
She still lives by the Rule of St. Benedict, which teaches one to balance good works with prayer on a daily basis. It also calls disciples to hospitality, greeting others as if greeting Jesus.
She lost one of her two sons to cancer in 1983 and divorced her lawyer-husband in 1993.
She has been a paralegal and a professional photographer and taught English as a second language in Italy.
She joined the Peace Corps and spent 1998 through 2000 in Namibia. When civil war began in nearby Angola, she was forced out. She returned to Oregon to have a hip replaced before taking on a new assignment.
In 2001, she went to Ghana with the Peace Corps, developing a butterfly sanctuary as part of building an economy of ecotourism. She also became a Peace Corps manager.
In 2003, she began a six-month backpacking tour of Europe, including a pilgrimage walk in Spain. "I was observing, looking at God's people, my brothers and sisters," she said.
She decided she wanted to work within the church and headed back to Oregon. In 2005, she joined the Maryknoll Lay Missioners program.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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